‘Some people feel the rain, others just get wet.’ – Bob Marley
This afternoon, while casually listening to the song Motorcycle Emptiness by Manic Street Preachers for the hundredth time, the opening scene with James Dean Bradfield singing in the rain, under neon loneliness, in a Tokyo street crowded with people and umbrellas reminded me of Renoir’s painting The Umbrellas. Bustling street, in the rain, dark coloured umbrellas permeated with melancholy, and the feeling of alienation in the city, themes the painting and the song share in common, have all alluringly drawn me into the story that lies behind Renoir’s magnificent painting The Umbrellas.
This paintings is very interesting for many reasons. Firstly, it was painted in two different stages, the right part indicating the Impressionistic style with its loose brushstrokes and slightly brighter colour palette, while the left portion, featuring a lady dressed in a dreary grey dress, was painted around 1885-86, the dress style indicating the precise years. In the middle of the 1880s Renoir became disillusioned with the Impressionism and sought inspiration in the works of Courbet and Manet, admiring their realistic approach, and also in the works of old masters such as Antoine Watteau and Francois Boucher, the sentimentality of whose paintings had always been deep-rooted into Renoir’s works. That so intriguing female figure on the left is actually a modiste or a milliner’s assistant, modeled by Renoir’s lover Suzanne Valadon, a very rebellious, passionate and seductive young lady, not even twenty years old when the painting was started. Bleak grey shades of her dress and those realistically sad brush strokes are the best legacy of Renoir’s change of style. The figure that he had so unhesitatingly repainted originally wore a white dress with lots of lace and frills and a lavishing hat. By changing her dress, Renoir changed her position in society, from an upper class lady, this figure became a grisette; a coquettish and flirtatious working class girl. The composition is quite unusual too; instead of a central composition one would expect, Renoir emphasised the left part of the canvas giving the figure of modiste even more depth and meaning. Behind the lady we see a vigorous young gentleman, a student or a dandy perhaps, that is about to engage her, maybe offer her shelter under his umbrella. She is not even remotely interested, instead she gazed longingly at the viewer. While her face appears rosy and innocent, her eyes are filled with melancholy, despair, and wistful reconciliation.
Renoir in general wanted to capture the mood of modern Paris; the bohemianism, the nonchalance, the laughter; an aim he fulfilled in works such as ‘Le Moulin de la Galette‘, but in the painting The Umbrellas, Renoir presented a rather different view on modern Paris, emphasising its isolation. The scene itself is very dynamic, the sky is almost hidden away by all the umbrellas, but the crowd of people are barely having any contact with each other. Apart from the gentleman on the left, all the other characters are rushing in their own ways, fairly uninterested for one another. It’s a rainy day and Parisian streets are busy, who has time for chatter!?
Essentially, isn’t it the same, the feeling of estrangement in the city, whether it is the 19th century Paris seen through the eyes of Renoir or the late 20th century alienation that Richey Edwards has so eloquently expressed, the feeling of being lost, isolated and trapped in a big city is universal.